Responding to Changing Times

President Trump's executive orders have inspired many companies to respond in a public way, highlighting an opportunity for employers to tout their benefits programs as differentiators in a crowded market for talent.

Monday, February 6, 2017
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Every few years, I am drawn to connect a regional, national or global event to the world of HR and employee benefits. The January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Connecticut's 2011 snowmageddon, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, and the 2015 tragedy in Paris all posed implications for some employers and their employees. They also provided policies-and-procedures blueprints for other employers on topics such as employee-assistance programs, business-continuity plans, employee communications, workplace safety and crisis preparedness.

I found myself recently contemplating President Trump's Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements executive order (which captured the world's attention, as well as that of employers across a multitude of business sectors) and how it would impact HR executives. Almost immediately, corporations appeared to be caught balancing a mix of potential business issues, employee concerns and an action that was at odds with company-stated values and beliefs.

At the risk of being accused of partisanship, I considered long and hard whether I could write about this topic. But, as I paused to watch when and how companies responded, I realized discussing the executive order was not about where you sit on the political spectrum. Instead, it's about how best to function as a business -- and as an advocate at times for your employees.  

It turned out many brand-name businesses stepped forward almost immediately. The majority followed a similar two-step outline in their response to the order.

They started with their companies' values and beliefs and how this action compared with their views on immigration. Some went on to reference how immigrants helped their businesses and the future of their companies.

Most quickly moved on to explain how this order impacted their employees and their families, including ways the company and its HR, legal and security teams were assisting them. Several companies and universities cited the number of employees, interns and students they believed the executive order affected. From an employee-communications standpoint, it is important for both affected workers and their colleagues to know what their organization is doing to help during a challenging situation.

Finally, business leaders who were immigrants themselves, such as Google's Sergey Brin and Sundar Pichai, spoke personally about the executive order. And, if there's one lesson I've learned in life, it's this: If you can talk about a topic from your own experience, you will capture more people's attention.

The company that grabbed my attention to the greatest degree, however, was Starbucks. What Howard Schultz, Starbucks' chairman and CEO, did was consider the president's stated goals and 19 executive actions  and comment on how they impacted the company, its employees (which the company refers to as partners) and what Starbucks would do to respond.

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From an employee-benefits perspective, Schultz's inclusion of his partners' most valued benefit -- health insurance -- in his message was both thoughtful and brilliant. The company has staked a great deal of its differentiation as an employer-of-choice on its health-insurance offering. Many leaders in the employee-benefits business are now speculating that an employer's benefits offerings may once again become a way to recruit and retain talent.

Here's what Schultz stated Starbucks will do regarding health insurance in what appears to be uncertain times about its future:

"If the recent Executive Order related to healthcare remains in place and the Affordable Care Act is repealed causing you to lose your healthcare coverage, you will always have the ability to return and can do so within 30 days of losing that coverage rather than having to wait for an open-enrollment period."

This is an industry-leading policy that smacks of a company that constantly updates its employee benefits in response to the times at hand.

Schultz and Starbucks even inspired me and the direction of my upcoming columns this year. If last year was the year of empathy for employees, 2017 will be the year of using employee benefits as a tool for differentiation among companies competing for talent.

Carol Harnett is a widely respected consultant, speaker, writer and trendspotter in the fields of employee benefits, health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. Follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett and on her video blog, The Work.Love.Play.Daily.


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